University of Windsor faces donor threats, Islamophobic backlash after BDS vote

A view from the student center at the University of Windsor, Canada, where a donor has threatened to stop hiring graduates after a referendum on BDS. (David Fiander)

Students at the University of Windsor (UW) in Ontario, Canada are facing defamation efforts and an attempt by the school’s president to derail the results of a referendum in which students voted to support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel.

A donor – who specifically blamed “Muslim” students for the vote – is also threatening to withdraw funding from the university and to stop hiring its graduates.

On 1 March, students passed a University of Windsor Students’ Alliance (UWSA) motion to support BDS by 798 to 585 votes.

The resolution states that the student union joins “student organizations around the globe by endorsing and participating in the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions from Palestinian civil society.”

It commits UWSA “to identifying and divesting from companies that support or profit from Israeli war crimes, occupation and oppression.”

Alleged “hate crime”

For a referendum to be valid, at least 10 percent of eligible students need to participate – or about 1,200 students, Seher Ali, a UW undergraduate and member of the Palestinian Solidarity Group who helped organize the referendum campaign, told The Electronic Intifada.

Including abstentions, almost 1,400 students took part, so “the chair of the UWSA okayed the results,” Ali explains.

But then, says Ali, “a mountain of backlash and misinformation from the media came down on the campus, mainly taking the opposition’s narrative that this was a banning of everything Israeli from campus and that there was a lot of abuse of process to make it happen. The media constantly framed our campaign as anti-Jewish and racist.”

Ali said that the propaganda “focused on a very convenient ‘hate crime’ which happened right before voting began which involved someone spray painting the word ‘Zionist’ and a Star of David on a UWSA executive’s flag in his office.”

According to The Windsor Star, the alleged vandalism happened after a break-in at the office of Jake De Jong, vice-president of academic affairs for UWSA.

De Jong hadn’t “taken sides in the boycott debate,” the Star reported, but had “been vocal about criticizing the referendum question itself over concerns it might cause safety issues on campus.”

Harvey Kessler, executive director of the Jewish Community Centre in Windsor, condemned the alleged break-in and in comments to the Star implicitly tied it to the referendum.

A student who would not give his full name alleged to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “the University of Windsor is not a safe place for Jewish students anymore … With this BDS campaign, you don’t feel safe if you have a kippah or even a T-shirt with Hebrew letters on it.”

President intervenes

On 3 March, university president Alan Wildeman held a closed-session meeting with the UWSA student council.

PSG member Hossam Sleiman, who was present at the meeting in his capacity as a UWSA councillor, told The Electronic Intifada that the president laid out various procedural complaints which he claimed could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the referendum.

Sleiman said that the president “made it sound as if administration had to be involved. They were starting to make it seem as if there were some sort of safety concerns on campus.”

But, says Sleiman, “the administration has no jurisdiction when it comes to UWSA’s policies and decisions. It is overstepping its boundaries by trying to impose its opinion.”

UWSA has also reaffirmed its independence from the university.

On 4 March, Wildeman sent a letter to UWSA alleging that “the referendum process that is now underway on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) issue has raised serious questions about the operations of the UWSA. Specifically, I have received many well-documented and detailed complaints about the processes used by the UWSA throughout the referendum.”

Wildeman proved no information to back up his claims.

Yet the president demanded that UWSA delay certifying the results of the vote until the university and UWSA could investigate the allegations.

In media interviews, Wildeman seemed to echo the allegations that the vote promoted bias. He justified his intervention, explaining that “I wanted to reassure the community that the University of Windsor campus is a safe place and we’re not going to tolerate anything that compromises the safety or security of anyone regardless of who they are or where they come from.”

Islamophobic donor’s boycott threat

The Windsor Engineering Society posted a letter to Wildeman on its Facebook page from a university alum, Richard Spencer, president of the engineering firm RC Spencer Associates.

The 4 March letter states:

The vote, initiated by the Palestinian Solidarity Group, represents a mere 5.7 percent of the student body of your university. From my perspective, I am reasonably certain that the majority, if not all, of this small percentage of the student body are of the Muslim faith, which promotes violence and hatred toward the Jews in the middle east. This group is not exercising tolerance of love and respect toward all. Further, why has this group not initiated referenda toward other nations that have been boycotted recently? What is next? Christian students, too, will feel unsafe on campus because of this intolerant group?”

Spencer claims his company has provided the equivalent of more than $500,000 in support to the university in the form of training and opportunities.

His letter demands that Wildeman take unspecified “action” to remedy the situation or else “my company will cease support of the University of Windsor and will not hire co-operative students from the University of Windsor Engineering Department.”

In an apparent response to Spencer’s attack on Muslim students, Wildeman writes in a 12 March letter to the university community that “in recent days there have also been many letters, emails and social media postings, originating both from within and from outside of the University, commenting on the referendum.”

Some of these “have contained highly inappropriate and offensive statements that target particular religions or nationalities.”

Wildeman does not specify Spencer’s letter but asserts that the university “absolutely does not condone such statements, and asks that people refrain from posting them and circulating them on social media sites.”

It remains to be seen whether the university will itself cut ties with a company whose founder is openly hostile to Muslim students – and presumably employees.

Wildeman’s letter also announced that the university had hired a lawyer, Raj Anand, to carry out an “investigation” of the BDS referendum.

The Windsor Engineering Society later removed Spencer’s inflammatory letter from its Facebook page, affirming that it “does not have an official stance on the BDS referendum.”

“Institutional backlash, harassment”

The Palestinian Solidarity Group (PSG) responded with a statement intended “to clear up the misinformation that’s been spread by the media in regards to the BDS referendum,” as well as to respond to Wildeman.

It notes that contrary to opposition claims, the resolution that passed was not a general boycott of Israel but rather “a very targeted proposal to divest from companies enabling the Israeli military occupation, which is why students voted in favor of the referendum.”

It lays out extensive steps the student group took to build support and prepare for the referendum which it describes as condemnation of occupation, war crimes and oppression, not any ethnicity, religion, national group or country.”

“The fact that Palestinians cannot simply ask a campus to divest from companies which contribute to their suffering without facing institutional backlash, harassment, and misrepresentation, speaks volumes about the depth of their oppression,” the PSG statement adds.

Support

PSG points to support from the off-campus group Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) which issued its own statement supporting the student referendum.

IJV condemns the university’s reaction as part of a “pattern of intimidation” that “is reflective of a broader aversion amongst university administrations towards acknowledging Palestinian rights.”

Dozens of professors from all over Canada issued an open letter saying they were “deeply disturbed” by Wildeman’s statement, which “threatens campus freedom of expression at the University of Windsor and more broadly in Canada and Quebec.”

Moving forward

According to PSG member and UWSA councillor Hossam Sleiman, the referendum was not discussed at the UWSA council’s most recent meeting on 13 March. It had not been included on the agenda in advance, and the council failed to pass a motion to discuss it without it being on the agenda.

As of yet, the result of the referendum – although valid – has not been officially notified to and accepted by the council.

Sleiman says another meeting has been scheduled for this Friday where he hopes that will happen. “We’re eager to move forward,” he says.

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It is really time that individuals like Spencer be soundly put back in place and have their wrong assumptions publicly corrected. Bullying and blackmail have always been effective tactics, but that should be recognised by any University in a democratic land where freedom of speech is a basic right.
It might be helpful if the student body, beside re-stating what their objectives are, also state the obvious, which is that they strongly condemn any racist action against anyone because of their color, religion or professed affiliation to any group. My experience of BDS supporters is one of consistent decency in the face of lies, oppression, demonization and threats. I trust that will continue.
I would also recommend that Mr. Spencer take a look at the comments made on any day in Israeli and international newspapers, pro-Zionist websites and social media on subjects related to Arab countries and Palestinians when he refers to promoting "violence and hatred toward the Jews in the middle east" and substitute Arabs for Jews.

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I am extremely upset about the university's allegation of vandalism by the students supporting Palestine. I support the quest for justice in Palestine. I hope that there was no vandalism, because, if so, that puts me in a bad position with the people I am trying to convince to support justice in Palestine. I know that entities who want to blacken the name of a cause will claim vandalism, and use spurious accusations such as "walking on the grass". I would advise students for justice to be careful, though I realize that is difficult faced with a university behemoth. Of course, even a little vandalism is nothing compared to the vandalism that Israel is doing to the Palestinians. That injustice makes me ill.

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From the fake "hate crime" to the "jewish students feel unsafe" angle. We've seen these tactics before.

Maybe there should be a pamphlet for students fighting for justice in Palestine titled "This is what to expect". They could make it known around campus that the typical Israeli response is probably on the way.

ANOTHER THING. Spencer worries that Muslim students flooded to vote for BDS, but mentions nothing about possible Jewish students who flooded to vote it down.

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Another university whose president doesn't believe in free speech unless he agrees with the contents. Has Wildeman has taken any action against his alum's blatant Islamophobia?

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Yes, a pertinent question when anyone with their eyes and ears open notes a spreading Islamophobia that has reached even finely-tuned, otherwise politically aware individuals.

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..just because students voted in agreement to this referendum doesn't mean jewish students are at risk of being attacked or harrassed. Why would they be? Just because they support Israel? Okay sure support them. And pass another referendum or something through UWSA to remove the boycott. This was a democratic process. It shows that students won't stand by while oppression happens.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.